Parents: Just Say No to Raising a Failed Adult

Here are some ways to ensure your child won’t be able to keep a job or be an otherwise productive member of society.

A young man naps on a sofa.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Lawyers are often witness to the very best — and worst — behaviors of clients and their children. This Southern attorney in general practice emailed me this story about how her clients — successful physicians — raised failed adults, which often results in the kids getting in serious legal and financial trouble as adults.

“Dennis, our firm has always been very much involved in the lives of our clients. We are encouraged to help their children with school projects and to be a good source of common sense when asked. We’ve seen a lot of great parents and, sadly, more helicopter parents who have ruined their kids’ chance at becoming self-sufficient adults by their enabling behavior, often seen in the ranks of financially successful families.

“One stands out. Two brothers had the king and queen of helicopter parents. One, as a child, had some mental illness his parents never addressed. We helped both get into law school. One washed out of two law schools, did an MBA but refuses to actively look for a job, living at home and is 30. The younger brother, 27, also living at home, I helped with his law school exam technique. He rejected my help preparing for the state bar exam and failed it four times. I did get him a job as a paralegal in a law firm. Instead of calling and thanking me, nothing!

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“We have informed the family to find a new lawyer. The feeling of being used is just too much. This would be a good topic for your column: How to raise a failed adult. Thanks, Sarah.”

Lawnmower and helicopter parents can’t say no

I ran this question by Susan Newman, PhD, social psychologist and author of The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It ― and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. It addresses saying NO to your children whatever their ages and why that’s important.

I asked Newman, “What creates a failed adult?” She listed:

1. Parents who can’t say no to their children.

Consequences: The child starts to feel entitled beginning when they are very young. They aren’t allowed to make decisions for themselves. They have helicopter or lawnmower parents who plow down every obstacle that’s in their child’s way. The child doesn’t have to work hard for anything. It’s all going to be there, and if they mess up, Mom or Dad is there to take care of it. This early coddling comes back to haunt parents when they have young adults who can’t stand on their own two feet and still expect someone to bail them out. They have no resilience to any kind of failure.

2. Parents who don’t treat their grown children like adults.

Consequences: These parents slip back into their Mommy- or Daddy-with-a-10-year-old-child role when their adult child is around. They have dinner waiting every night, pick up their dirty dishes, do their laundry and so on. Stop treating them like guests. You can do this by not covering all their expenses, or paying to put gas in their car.

If they have a job, even if it’s just part time, make them responsible for some token amount of rent. Have them mow the lawn or do the grocery shopping this week. Say, “You handle dinner.”

Don’t run interference in their job hunting or their dating life. Back off — these are young adults, not teenagers.

If someone does something nice for them, you should say, “You need to call them right now and say thanks for getting me that interview or that gift.”

3. Parents giving kids the things the parents never had as children is often the basis for these behaviors.

Now that the parents have money, they want to give their kids the things they felt deprived of. Psychologically, this is a way to fill a void in their own lives, such as when their own parents could not come to a soccer game or weren’t there for them in some way.

These parents feel they should make life easier for their children, but they’re doing just the opposite. They aren’t helping. Rather, they are preventing the child from facing adversity and developing fortitude and independence.

4. Parents who fail to realize that this problem does not cure itself and who have no exit plan when the adult children stay or return home.

Consequences: Yes, there are some cultures where the kids remain at home until they marry. But, assuming there are no disabilities or chronic mental illness, the adult children we are talking about are perfectly capable of living on their own but simply choose not to. It becomes a major problem when the parents are being taken advantage of — this could easily turn into elder financial abuse.

Parents need to set a time frame in which they expect their adult children to move out. Perhaps it’s an age or perhaps six months or a year after they get a job or graduate from college. But parents need to set a negotiated “out” date.

Concluding our interview, Newman cautioned, “Don’t give up your social life to always be there to help your adult child out. Eventually — hopefully — your child will leave, and you do not want to break off all your connections to your bigger world. Explain how their living on their own benefits everyone.”

Help out your friends with 'The Book of No'

The Book of No is a terrific read. If you know someone like the parents described here, maybe have it delivered anonymously. You might just help prevent your friends’ kids from getting into legal and financial hot water and your friends becoming victims of elder financial abuse committed by their children.

To read more on this topic, you can check out two articles I wrote many years ago: You and the Law: 21 and in jail. Momma, don’t bail him out! and You and the Law: Luck of the enabled.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to And be sure to visit

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."